J pod orcas form a sleeping line while newest calf romps during nostalgic 8-day visit to SJI

J pod orcas form a sleeping line while newest calf romps during nostalgic 8-day visit to SJI

June 21, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

The undisputed star of the week was the pod’s newest member: J59, a still copper-colored calf recently confirmed to be a female, the second offspring of J37 Hy’Shqa. She put on a show for people on shore, breaching repeatedly, as well as romping in the water with her family and rubbing among them as they tried to form a sleeping line.

But most of all, the long stay was a welcome sign of progress in the battle to make the Southern Residents’ historical summertime habitat a viable place to forage again. After the horrid summer of 2016—when key members of the population died, several from apparent malnutrition—the endangered population, down to the low 70s in numbers, has spent the majority of its time foraging for Chinook salmon, the whales’ dietary staple, off the western coast of Vancouver Island.

There have, of course, been periodic appearances back in the Salish Sea in the summer and other times as well, but they have all been relatively brief. The longest stay in recent memory occurred last September, when they visited for four days. But what’s also been clear, and encouraging, is that they clearly are no longer starving. The whales, to no one’s great surprise, went to where the salmon could be found.

The Center for Whale Research filed a detailed report of their encounters with the pod in late May, noting their gregarious play behavior, as well as their tendency to play games with the humans in the boats that follow them:

After a medium sized yacht passed by heading south, the J19s turned west in a tight group and pointed toward the approaching boat wake. J51 began tail lobbing excitedly. Thinking the whales might surf the wake or start breaching, we pointed our boat that direction. While we were focused on the J19s, we were momentarily confused by a strange sound coming from somewhere. We turned around in time to see J38’s head sinking back underneath the surface. He had spyhopped and blown a raspberry at us behind our backs which gave us a good chuckle.

In all, they were able to record the presence of every J pod member and confirm their apparent good health. Which is always a good and hopeful sign.

Deborah Giles and her specially trained dog Eba collect scat samples from the passing orcas.

University of Washington whale scientist Deborah Giles, who collects scat samples from visiting killer whales under a program with the organization Wild Orca, was also out on the water for several days out of the eight-day visit. Her specially trained dog Eba sniffs out the floating orca scat, and Giles collects it carefully for laboratory analysis, from which whale scientists are able to glean astonishing amounts of useful information about the animals’ health.

I spoke with her this week about what she saw out there that week—whether the whales looked healthy, and whether there was salmon for them to eat:

We saw predation activity a couple of times. And clearly, over the course of that amount of time, it’s evident to me as someone who collects fecal samples, that they had to have been eating, because we were getting some pretty decent-size samples, different than what we’ve had in the recent past where it’s very watery and diffuse.

You know, it’s my old adage: Everybody loves a pooping whale, because when you have a pooping whale, you have a whale that’s been eating. That’s what we had for those days. So they must have been foraging. We personally did not see too much of it.

But we saw the social active behavior. And you don’t really see that when they’re not getting enough to eat.

I was really pleasantly surprised at how filled-out their backs and their heads and the area in front of their dorsal fins appeared—you know, the areas where you look for ‘peanut head’ and other indications of malnutrition. I didn’t really see any of that.

She agreed with the onshore-observer consensus that J37 Hy’Shqa looked very spry and healthy—always a concern where nursing mothers are involved—and that her new baby is unusually playful. The consensus, in fact, was that she was the cutest damned thing on the planet, though there were in fact two other calves in the pod who provided stiff competition. Giles concurred:

They both looked good to me. The mother’s not stressed, and that baby is like a crazy baby—just so active! Just a really gregarious breacher—you know, not all whales are breachers, and some just are. This new baby seems to be carrying on that line.

All we can do is keep our fingers crossed that they’ll come back for more. There clearly was not enough food to keep them here, like we used to see in the past. It was a good reminder of how things could be, with them being here every day and doing that ‘west side shuffle.’  I think that’s what all us ‘dorcas’ are working toward, is trying to make it so that this habitat, their traditional summer core critical habitat, has enough food to keep them here. It’s not that long ago—really, just the blink of an eye—all three pods would have been here, pretty much every day, from early June into July, August, and September. And it’s just not the case anymore.

This was sort of a glimmer, like the Ghost of Christmas Past. Looking back, it was a good reminder of what was, and what could be.

One of the three J pod calves surfaces next to her mother.
The calves and the adults engaged in a lot of playful contact.
The calves also frequently breached.
An approaching spyhop.
An evening visit near the Sun Juan Island Land Bank.